Luo Shirong is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
That is a very difficult question because in order to define “philosophy of religion” one needs to be clear about what philosophy and religion are, respectively, and those two terms are notoriously hard to delineate adequately. What is philosophy? This beguilingly simple question seems to require an extended discussion, as evidenced by the monographs written by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze.
Phillip H. Wiebe
Phillip H. Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
If philosophy consists of critical reflection on logic, ontology, epistemology, axiology, and linguistic meaning – its core historical content – then philosophy of religion consists of these kinds of critical reflection on beliefs and behaviors “associated in some way with a supernatural realm, a sphere of divine or spiritual beings.” This rough definition of religion is from Daniel Pals, who thus distils (Seven Theories of Religion) the views of seven great theorists of the last century: Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Tylor, and Geertz. I consider the most insightful general approach to the ontological status of religious claims to be that of W. V. O. Quine, who observed that the gods are cultural posits whose epistemological footing is similar, although inferior, to that of physical objects (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism”).
Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of Research at Monash University, Australia. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
While there are many other parts of philosophy of religion, the part that seems to me to be both central and of the greatest interest is the assessment or evaluation of worldviews.
Not all worldviews are religious. Along with Christian worldviews, Islamic worldviews, Jewish worldviews, Hindu worldviews, Buddhist worldviews, Jain worldviews, Sikh worldviews, Daoist worldviews, and so forth, there are worldviews that are at most marginally religious — e.g. Confucian worldviews — and worldviews that are decidedly not religious — e.g. secular worldviews, naturalistic worldviews, and so forth. Nonetheless, philosophy of religion is properly concerned with the assessment of all of these kinds of worldviews.
There are three major stages in the assessment of worldviews.
Joseph G. Trabbic is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His research and publications are in medieval philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
A lot (and perhaps most) of what goes by the name “philosophy of religion” today standardly concerns itself with questions about the nature, existence, and cognitive accessibility of God and related matters. This holds true for both analytic and continental philosophy of religion. And it also happens to be the way that I think of the subject. But is this approach to philosophy of religion defensible? I believe it is.
Jerome A. Stone is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois and on the adjunct faculty of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. His courses have included Environmental Ethics, Nonwestern Philosophy, World Religions and Racism in America. He is the author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (SUNY) and Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (SUNY) and the co-editor of The Chicago School of Inquiry—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry. A United Church of Christ pastor for 18 years, he is now a Unitarian Universalist minister involved in adult religious education. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Philosophy is disciplined thinking creating surmises about matters of importance. There is no consensus about the method of reaching or supporting these visions, hence they are surmises. A case can be made for such a surmise, but it is always subject to challenge. In the final analysis there is no final analysis (apparent contradiction intended).
Discipline is practiced by various means, including learning from other philosophies, being open to challenge, exploring the accumulated wisdom of humanity, seeking empirical fit where appropriate, and so forth.
In developing my own thinking I have attempted to define religion in such a way as to include religious naturalism and religious humanism. Most conceptions of religion involve a reference to a transcendent dimension. My working definition of religion is that it is an orientation of life in relation to the “Big Picture.” A humanist who tries to live her life in the light of the world as shown by the best current science is, insofar, religious. This is the naturalist analogue to standard notions of transcendence.
Thus philosophy of religion will involve disciplined thinking about how to live our lives in the light of the Big Picture.
Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His Ph.D. is from The University of Georgia. He is the co-editor of Beyond Brain Death: The Case against Brain-Based Criteria for Human Death (Kluwer, 2000), and has authored numerous articles and book reviews for academic journals as well as making over fifty conference presentations. He is also the author of a novel, End of Summer (WordCrafts Press, 2011) and an award-winning poetry chapbook, From Field to Thicket. His philosophical interests are in medical and applied ethics, the philosophy of religion, medieval philosophy, and philosophy and parapsychology. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
There are so many “philosophies-of-disciplines” that my wife, who does not share my love of philosophy, sarcastically asks if “there is a philosophy of toenail clipping.” However, philosophy of religion has been a stalwart and respectable sub-discipline of philosophy. There are philosophers who disagree—A. J. Ayer once replied to a philosopher who mentioned philosophy of religion, “Oh. . .I didn’t know there was any such thing.” Other than positivists such as Ayer, philosophers of all stripes, including atheists, agree that philosophy of religion is a legitimate field.
To answer the question of “What is philosophy of religion?” a person must have some definition of “philosophy” and “religion.” Continue reading
Merold Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Fordham University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
I consider philosophy to be critical reflection on our being-in-the-world. By ‘being-in-the-world’ I understand our doings and our seeings-as insofar as they reciprocally condition one another.
By ‘reflection’ I mean a kind of stepping back to look at our lives, as if from outside, though, of course, this is itself one of those doings that is conditioned by various seeings-as. We are never outside ourselves in the sense of a neutral, universal, presuppositionless “view from nowhere.” We are always somewhere in a world of doings and seeings-as, but that world can have two levels, immediacy and reflection. This means that we can move. Reflection can lead us to new understandings of the world we already inhabit or even to some quite different world.
By ‘critical’ I do not mean negative opposition but rather something like Socratic questioning. Are we clear about what we believe, what we do,and why we do it? Do our doings and seeings-as measure up to the criteria by which we profess to support them? Are the criteria themselves clear and compelling? (Philosophy has this nasty habit of shaking the foundations of our being-in-the-world by putting our criteria in question.)
Charles Taliaferro is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
There is good reason to believe that the first philosopher writing in English to employ the term ‘philosophy of religion’ was the 17th century Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth. Cudworth and the other Cambridge Platonists (including Henry More, John Smith, and others) saw philosophy of religion as a central practice to philosophy (the love of wisdom) itself: the philosophical exploration of our relationship to God, the nature of the soul and cosmos, animals and created order, and the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful in both practice and theory.
Nancy Frankenberry is John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
I often tell my students that philosophers of religion are odd ducks. We are at once too philosophical to interest many of our colleagues in religion departments, and too interested in questions about religion to please most members of philosophy departments. Our critical craft is at least as old as the Hellenistic posing of questions to Hebrew texts, but today we are seeking to move beyond the Western religious presumption of ethical monotheism as well as the Eurocentric cast of philosophy.
As I see it, then, the major task of philosophy of religion in our time is to become more global in its orientation, comparative in its methodology, and empirical in its inquiry into the differences between specific religions. The comparative philosophy of religions is necessarily interdisciplinary, making as much use of history of religions and cultural anthropology as previous practitioners have made of speculative metaphysics and hermeneutical phenomenology. Insofar as the discipline faces the challenge of encounter with traditions expressing practices and beliefs that are not predominantly associated with European, white, male modes of understanding, it will be required to elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival claims on comparative topics. Obviously, this is a tall order and only a few philosophers of religion currently execute it with any skill.
Michael S. Jones
Michael S. Jones is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University and Executive Editor for the Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
What is philosophy of religion? Without even a dash of hyperbole, I’d say that philosophy of religion is the greatest of all intellectual human endeavors. It is a logically rigorous and intensely creative attempt to probe subjects at least some of which transcend human comprehension. The ideas that we find in the world’s religions – the idea of a pantheon of competing gods or a single supreme God, the concept of a being that is incorporeal and yet omnipresent, the question of if and how human cognition can lead to beliefs about such a being that accurately reflect that being’s nature, and many other fascinating but difficult issues – are carefully analyzed, using the tools of logic, linguistic analysis, reflection on the insights of great thinkers of the past, and dialogue with current philosophers in order to arrive at conclusions that are as clear and accurate as is humanly possible. All this is done with a spirit of open-mindedness toward the eventual outcome of the investigation, the goal being a deeper understanding of ultimate reality. Yes, it’s grandiose. Philosophers of religion aim at the stars. Why aim lower?